Tag Archives: Christianity

Sabbath and the American Dream

monday-reflectionsWhat do we value as a society?

One of my favorite movies over the past several years is Nightcrawler directed by Dan Gilroy and starring Jake Gyllenhaal. The film tells the story of Lou Bloom who is a persistent and focused hard-worker. Lou decides to start his own small business as a filmmaker of sorts, videotaping nighttime events such as car accidents, burglaries, and the likes for a local news station. He is quite good at his job and the business expands.

The story begins with Lou desperately looking for a job. It ends with him being the owner and manager of a very successful TV news business. Another great rags to riches story.

There’s just one problem: Lou Bloom is a sociopath.

He tampers with crime scenes to get a better shot. He manipulates the police and creates crimes of his own by withholding information. He blackmails a colleague to fulfill his own sexual cravings. Lou has no problem exploiting law enforcement, crime victims, as well as his co-workers in order to advance his own life and career.

Yet society rewards him because he is a hard-worker

Granted, this is a fictional story. It never happened. Yet, perhaps in some ways, it happens every day.

It comes back to that question: what do we value as a society?

Oftentimes, if we are honest with that answer, we value hard-work, diligence, and, ultimately, productivity. The American Dream is the idea that we can be anything we want to be if we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps (whatever those are) and get it done.

In theory, we say we value ideals such as honesty, integrity, and morality. But consider George and Matt:

George is physically strong, agile, and attractive. He has been in the work force since the day he turned 16. He has worked both blue-collar and white-collar jobs. His employers give him nothing but praise, calling him “self-motivated”, “focused”, and “persistent”.

Meanwhile, Matt is weak, underweight, and appears rather sickly and homely. In fact, he can barely walk without a cane. Matt struggled throughout his education and barely graduated high school. College was out of the question. His employers say that he is easily distracted, calls in sick too often, and has a difficult time understanding basic instructions.

Now, without saying anything regarding these two men’s integrity, which of these men will be primed for what society refers to as “success”?

So regardless of what we say we value as a society — the answer seems all too clear.

In fact, if we take a look at how we understand “success”, we continue to see that we put more emphasis on productivity than we do any notion of morality. We ask children “what they want to be when they grow up” and we expect them to give us the name of an occupation. A doctor. A teacher. An athlete.

We don’t expect to hear answers such as “a generous woman” or “a Godly man”. Those are not as easy to define and they are too abstract to be given the label of “success”.

So what we really mean is: “How are you going to be productive when you grow up?”

In such a culture where productivity and efficiency is praised above all else, those of us who desire to be faithful citizens of God’s Kingdom are in need of a reminder of Sabbath. In a world that is constantly praising business, we can take time to step away from that world and find rest in the arms of God. We need time to remember that God loves and values us regardless of our “success”, or lack-thereof, in the world.

Sabbath is not only about rest. It is also about refusing to worship the idols of production and the almighty dollar. It is declare to a world that says, “You can pull yourself up by your bootstraps” that no, we cannot. We cannot lift ourselves up on our own. We need the grace of God. We need the Lord’s help. We need Jesus.


Monday Morning Sermon: Give Us Today Our Daily Broccoli

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                        Photo by PDPics licensed under CC0 Public Domain.

“‘This, then, is how you should pray:

‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from the evil one.’”

Matthew 6:9-13

The older I get the more I realize how blessed of a childhood I had. I grew up living the American Dream in so many ways. I had a nice house in a nice neighborhood. My parents are still together to this day – happily so. My sisters and I got along for the most part. Every night for dinner we would all eat together at the family table. You don’t see pictures of families like that very often anymore and that’s a shame.

Yet even for a healthy family like mine, the dinner table was not always a peaceful place. Wars were fought at the dinner table and I was the cause for many of those wars. Now, what you are probably thinking is that I was a spoiled brat causing problems or something. But once I share my side of the story you’ll understand that I was the victim. See, my parents kept trying to put this substance on my plate and, I’m telling you, it was something that the human body is not supposed to consume. It was green, it had a stem, and it had little leaves on the top. It looked like a little baby tree. They told me, “Andrew, you don’t get to leave the table until you eat all those little trees.” I’m thinking, “You’re trying to kill me, aren’t you?”

So I came up with some battle strategies. Plan A: I just cry and scream and whine until they give in. Plan A never worked very well; I just got spanked and then I had to eat the baby trees anyway. Plan B: Milk is opaque. When you put the trees in the milk they become invisible. Plan B didn’t work; they found the trees when dumping my milk so then I would have to eat milky trees. That’s where Plan C came in: I can just throw the trees on the floor and they’ll never know the difference. I tried that once and my dad caught me so I got in pretty big trouble.

Okay, maybe I was just a spoiled brat. Here I am, such a lucky kid who never has to worry about food being on the table and I spend my time complaining with what I have. What I really needed to learn as a kid was the Lord’s Prayer.

“Give us today our daily bread.” That doesn’t sound too complicated a thing to ask. It’s short. It’s simple. What else is there to say about it? This prayer is simply asking for God to provide for our needs. It’s not necessarily literal bread but it is the material needs that we have in this world. We already do that, don’t we? We ask for God to give us the things we need.

Well, I am not so sure that we do. Praying the Lord’s Prayer is difficult because it is asking God to interfere with our life, our boundaries, and our values. So, we often merely recite the prayer rather than pray it. We may say the words, “Give us today our daily bread.” But are we really asking God to do that for us – or do we feel that God has bigger things on His mind?

After all, there is unrest in the Middle East – God should be working to take care of that. There is a presidential election coming up next year – maybe God should be focusing on ensuring the right candidate gets voted in. There is the cliché that there are children starving in Africa – they need their daily bread. But we can take care of our own, right? We do not need God to provide that for us. After all, we live in America where we can work hard and provide for ourselves.

I spent some time this week looking up definitions for the “American Dream”. Every definition that I read had its own spin on exactly how to define it but there were some key words and phrases that I saw in just about all the definitions. “Opportunity”, “Equality”, “Freedom”, “Liberty”, “The pursuit of happiness”, and “hard work”. Essentially, we define the American Dream as the idea that, in America, you can be whoever you want to be if you work hard enough. You can achieve all that you want to achieve. You can have all that you need and want to have. Because in America all are created equal and we all have the opportunity to become successful.

In America, no one needs to provide our daily bread for us. At least that’s what we seem to believe. But remember – the gospel has a way of challenging our values. The one who believes in the American Dream does not find it necessary to pray, “Give us today our daily bread”. The one who prays the Lord’s Prayer rejects the American Dream because it is to admit that we cannot sustain ourselves and we are dependent upon the grace of God in all things.

See, we like to pretend that God has His little boundary in our life. He affects us spiritually. He makes us better morally. But we don’t need Him to provide for us materially because we can do that ourselves – at least we want to. We need God’s grace to save us from sin but we earn the food on our table. We earn the roof over our head. We decide what the bread that we need is. God just needs to stay in His boundary, right? Because otherwise, we become a little too dependent on Him and when that happens we lose control.

Now, don’t get me wrong – it is important that we work hard to put food on the table and to do what we can to make a life for ourselves. Praying this prayer is not an excuse for laziness.

There are some “preachers” out there who will say that they do not spend any time working on a sermon throughout the week. In fact, they’ll say that even come Sunday morning they don’t know what passage they’re going to look through. They’re just going to be led by the Spirit and preach what He is wanting them to preach.

I have a couple of words for preachers with that kind of mentality. One of them is lazy. Every Sunday morning, you bet I am praying desperately that God gives me the words to say and that I don’t get in the way of what He is trying to do. But if Sunday is the first time I’m expecting the Holy Spirit to lead me then I’m in trouble. Because I need to be praying that He leads me all throughout the week as I study, as I wrestle with the passage, as I write out the words that I want to use. When I write a sermon I work hard. Just because I am seeking for the Lord to lead me does not mean that I sit around all week and do nothing. But I also understand that no matter how hard I work, on my own strength my efforts will amount to nothing.

It’s good to work hard but we all have to realize that it is the Lord that sustains us not our own hard work. There is actually very little that we can control.

That is what I learned when I was little kid whining about eating my broccoli. You know what’s great about my parents: when I was a good kid, obeying all the rules, finishing any chores that were asked of me, my parents would put food on the table for me. And when I was not a good kid, when I didn’t obey the rules, and when I didn’t do what was asked of me, my parents still put food on the table for me. That was not a conditional thing and it was not something that I could control in one way or another by my behavior. They just provided for me. But I also didn’t get to choose what they fed me. Sometimes I had broccoli put on my plate and so I often found it easier to complain than to actually trust that my parents were seeking out my best interest.

It is much easier to complain than it is to trust.  See, when we complain we get to play the victim and everyone loves a good victim. Turn on the news and there’s always a new victim that we need to be sensitive towards. Kids are “victims” of bullying. Gays and lesbians are “victims” of discrimination. Christians are “victims” of religious persecution. Immigrants are “victims” of unjust legislation. Veterans are “victims” of an unthankful country. I do not mean to be insensitive because many of those individuals are certainly mistreated. But it illustrates how much we love to be the victim. It gives power behind our complaint. It allows others to feel sympathetic for us. It puts the attention on us. And it allows us to try to gain control back rather than being dependent upon God.

Praying the Lord’s Prayer doesn’t seem to give any room for complaining. Because we turn to our Father in heaven and ask Him for our daily bread – for what we need – and when we truly pray that prayer we believe He can and will provide for us. So there’s nothing to complain about. It’s out of our hands. There is nothing to worry about because we believe that God has it under control. He will sustain us.

Every time that I complained as a child about what parents fed me I was telling them that I did not trust them to give me what was needed. Every time that we complain we are telling God that we do not trust Him to give us today our daily bread.

To pray the Lord’s Prayer is to be reminded that God is our Father in heaven, and like the best of father’s here on earth, He’s going to provide for us. And yes, we need Him to provide for us. We need Him to give us our daily bread. It may not always be what we want. There will be times He may give us something akin to broccoli. But when we pray, “Give us today our daily bread.” We are praying with confidence that God will sustain us.

God cares about our physical needs and He is present in the daily circumstances of our life. God is not only “out there” making His will done, He is also providing us something as simple as bread. We work hard to do what we can but we understand that it is ultimately God who gives us the strength to do the work and it is God who puts the food on our table.

And this challenges us because we grew up believing in something called the American Dream. We believed that if we worked hard enough that we could decide what is best for us: what we need and what we want. The Lord’s Prayer rejects that idea because it says we are dependent upon God to sustain us. We have to trust Him rather than our own strength. So here’s a new dream, a better one I have found: We are a people who seeks that God’s will is done in this world and that is what we live for. We do not chase after our own desires or affluence, we live to be God’s hands and feet in this world. We don’t need, we don’t want the materialistic possessions that the world finds so important. And we trust that in the daily grind the Lord cares about us and for us and He will provide what we need to survive.

In this dream there is no room for complaining because God is present and we can trust Him to give us today our daily bread – even if it is broccoli.


Monday Morning Sermon: Giving God Our Coloring Book

“‘This, then, is how you should pray:

‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from the evil one.'”

Matthew 6:9-13

When I was a young child, like many young children, I was given coloring books and crayons so that I might be entertained. There were no “rules” to this per se, as long as I did not make a mess by coloring on things off the page. The line between the coloring book and the table was a boundary that I was told I needed to respect. As I matured my boundaries narrowed. I was told that I needed to stay within the lines on the page. I could choose whatever colors I wanted but I needed to try to stay within those lines – those were my new boundaries.

The elementary school I attended had two “fields”. One was smaller, had playground equipment, and was fenced in. The other field was much larger and more open. It was used for baseball or football and it had no fences. We called the two fields, quite appropriately, the “big field” and the “small field”. Younger children were rarely allowed on the big field. So for some time the fence on the small field was my boundary. When I was finally allowed to play on the big field during lunch and recess, there was no fence but we were not allowed to go beyond certain points. “You can’t pass the parking lot”, they said. “You can’t cross the railroad tracks.” “You can’t cross the alleyway”. Those were now my new boundaries.

When I attended high school, I had to take a biology class. When we got to the topic of evolution, our teacher told us that this was a time to set our faith aside for a while. My teacher said that faith has its place and science has its place. But she made it clear that there was a boundary between the two.

As I matured I grew accustomed to the fact that everything has its boundaries – a place where it belongs. Countries and people have boundaries. Different schools of thought have boundaries. Politics has its boundaries. Our values have boundaries. Some of these boundaries are clearly defined for us; a border between countries, for example. Others are more abstract but are still very much present.

The problem with the gospel is that it has a way of breaking through those boundaries that we have come to find so important. The gospel doesn’t always stay in the lines of the coloring book; in fact, it doesn’t even always stay on the page.

This is probably why most of us are not bold enough to pray the Lord’s Prayer.

This is a prayer that is often recited but it is rarely prayed. What I mean by that is that we have grown so accustomed to the words that when we do say them we are simply mimicking what we have heard in Sunday School.

We cannot pray this prayer because we do not believe its words. See, what we pray reveals what we believe about God. A person who prays the Lord ’s Prayer believes that God is our Father in heaven – which means that He is both intimate (because He is our Father) and He is also a clear authority (because He is our Father in heaven). The one who prays this prayer is asking that God’s name be hallowed, or set-apart.  To pray, “Hallowed be your name” is to request that God be a unique presence in this world; an authority dependent on no other.

The one who prays this prayer is asking that God’s kingdom become even more present than the kingdoms of this world. It is to desire to see the Kingdom of Heaven overcoming the kingdoms of humanity.

But we don’t believe this prayer because we certainly don’t live like we believe it. We don’t see God as our set-apart authority, dependent on no other. We don’t see His kingdom as greater than kingdoms of our world.

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past couple of months, then you know that gay marriage is now legal in all 50 states. When the Supreme Court made that decision, there were two reactions that I noticed. On the one hand you had those celebrating this as a victory for civil rights. On the other hand you had those who cried that this went against the authority of scripture and against the authority of God. Not too long ago, a county clerk in Kentucky named Kim Davis was thrown in jail for not giving marriage certificates to gay couples. When asked on whose authority she did this, she said on God’s authority. Once again, there were two sides in this debate. One side said that she was discriminating against these couples. The other side said that she was standing up for God’s authority.

Throughout this whole debate I have realized something that bothers me about the way our country has reacted on both sides: we don’t see God as a set-apart authority. We don’t want His name to be hallowed or holy. We want to ignore His authority completely when it clashes with our own agendas. Or we assume that His authority is somehow at stake because a country says that a piece of paper and a law defines marriage rather than God. Which means that we believe His authority is dependent upon what our country calls reality. So no, we apparently don’t want His name to be hallowed. We don’t want His kingdom to come because we see the kingdom of this world as the final authority.

On Christmas in 1914, there was an unofficial cease fire on the western front between German and British soldiers. The two opposing armies lit Christmas trees together, exchanged gifts, played football, and celebrated the birth of our savior. On that one day, the world got to see a glimpse (just a glimpse) of what the gospel thinks of the boundaries of this world. Because on that day there were no Germans nor Englishman. There were neither French nor Austrian. As Paul says in Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28, NIV).

It seems that the reason that we do not pray the Lord’s Prayer is because we are afraid of Him, His Kingdom, and His will messing with the boundaries that we have created and have become so comfortable with. When we allow God’s will to be done in our world, our values tend to be messed with. We think a poor boy who pulls himself up by his bootstraps to become rich is a hero and the rich boy who gives all his possessions away is a fool. Our Lord tells us that former will have a difficult time entering the Kingdom of Heaven and that the latter will inherit eternal life. We think of one who desires for a promotion and a pay raise as ambitious. The gospel calls such a person one who covets. We think of industry and big business as a foundation for our country. The gospel reveals it for what it often really is: greed. Quaker theologian Richard J. Foster writes, “We really must understand that the lust for affluence in contemporary society is psychotic…it is time we awaken to the fact that conformity to a sick society is to be sick” (Foster, 80).

If we want to pray the Lord’s Prayer more than merely reciting it, we must be ready for God’s set-apart authority to come into our world, destroying the boundaries of our country and our values because we want His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. To pray this prayer is to ask God to take our coloring book and do whatever He wants with it even if He begins drawing outside of the lines.

Prayer has power. The one who would be bold enough to pray, not recite, but pray this prayer is asking for God to transform reality. I am fortunate enough to have a wonderful Earthly father. Not all of us can say that. There are many who have been let down in terrible ways by their Earthly father. The picture of father in our world has become so distorted. In television, the father is seen as stupid and incompetent. Stories of father’s abandoning their children are all too often heard. Our prisons are filled with hateful and abusive fathers. But this prayer shatters the world’s picture of a father and reveals to us that God is our good, heavenly father – and He overcomes the reality of our Earthly fathers. And even those, like me, who have a wonderful dad – none of us had a perfect dad. Praying the Lord’s Prayer reminds us that God is our true Father – the true intimate authority in our life.

We are blessed to live in a very privileged country and society. But folks, the U.S.A. is not the Kingdom of God. It never has been and it never will be. Despite all our privileges we sometimes find ourselves oppressed by what America calls freedom because it is so easy to get sucked in to the materialism, the greed, and the self-centeredness in our culture. Quite frankly, the values of our country often clash with the values of the gospel. Praying the Lord ’s Prayer gives us power to step out of the self-centeredness because we don’t seek our will – we seek that His will is done. And we don’t seek for America’s kingdom to come – we seek to have God’s Kingdom overcome it and every other fragile human boundary.

God, through the power of prayer, transforms our reality from one that oppresses us to one that saves us. It should not be a frightening thing to pray that His will is done because we know and believe that His will offers the world salvation. Nothing else can do that! We are a people who proclaim that Jesus is the answer and we want to see His will cross every boundary that the world holds sacred.

We are a people. The very first word of this prayer, in English, is “Our”. The Greek text very clearly makes this prayer plural. We do not pray, “My Father.” We pray “Our Father”. The Church is the people to whom we belong. Like British and German soldiers during Christmas of 1914, we reject the boundaries of the kingdoms of this world and call our fellow sisters and brothers in Christ our people. There is no British nor German. There is no French nor Austrian. There is no Chinese nor Russian. There is no American nor Mexican. For we, who are part of the Church, are all one in Christ Jesus and we all say this prayer together: “Our Father in heaven.”

Helmut Thielicke was a German preacher and theologian during World War II. During the war, he was preaching a series on the Lord’s Prayer. The week before he intended on preaching about the phrase, “Thy Kingdom come”, American bombers wiped out the bulk of his city. The cathedral that he preached in itself was mostly destroyed. But Sunday still came and he was there, as were the surviving members of the congregation. They gathered in the choir loft (which was all that was left of the building). Theilicke began with these words, “Isn’t there a comfort, a peculiar message in the fact that, after all the conflagrations that have swept through our wounded city, a sermon can begin with these words: ‘We shall continue our study of the Lord’s Prayer’” (Weigelt, 43)?

The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer that changes our perception of boundaries and reality. Who is bold enough to pray this prayer?

There is a phrase that I have grown fond of that was popularized by the television program, Mythbusters. The phrase is, “I reject your reality and substitute my own.” Praying the Lord’s Prayer empowers us to turn to the world and say: “We reject your reality and substitute God’s.” Amen.

Works Cited

Foster, Richard J. A Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. 3rd ed. San Francisco: Harper, 2002.

Weigelt, Morris A., and E. Dee. Freeborn. Living the Lord’s Prayer: The Heart of Spiritual Formation. Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill of Kansas City, 2001.


Hard Times in a Hard World

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Oftentimes, life has a way of being self-policing and self-punishing.

It’s like when a little kid sees a freshly baked batch of cookies on a hot oven tray and reaches out to grab one even though mommy and daddy already said no. In such a situation, no parent in their right mind is going to take the time to add a spanking to an already burnt hand. The child learned the lesson the hard way.

If you’ve followed sports news (or news in general for that matter) over the past 48 hours, then there is a good chance that you have heard about the famed race car driver, Tony Stewart, striking and killing a fellow driver with his race car. Moments before, the two drivers found themselves racing side-by-side, Stewart on the inside, Kevin Ward jr. on the outside. Coming off of the corner, Ward got squeezed into the wall, cut a tire, and came to a stop. The caution flag waved and Ward got out of his vehicle and waited for Stewart to come by in order to show his displeasure with his fellow racer. As Stewart drove by, his car hit and killed Ward.

The investigation is ongoing and while there are currently no criminal charges pending, many are suspecting and calling for Stewart to be charged with manslaughter or even accidental homicide.

Now, I’m not a lawyer so I don’t know much about the in’s and out’s of what qualifies as manslaughter. However, I am a racing fan and I can give you my perspective of what happened. Regrettably, I did watch video of the incident and I truly wish that I had not. (If you really want to see it, you can find it on YouTube but I will not post it here — viewer discretion advised.) I do not presume to know all the facts but from what I have read and seen, this is what I gather:

Some people question why Ward got out of his vehicle onto a track with moving race cars (even though they were under caution). Yet, this happens literally all the time in racing. In fact, it happened in the NASCAR Nationwide Series race just a few hours earlier and a couple of towns over from where the Stewart/Ward incident took place. Probably every race car driver has done that at one point or another. When you get wrecked, one way to show your displeasure is to wait for the field to come around the track and point at them to let them know you are unhappy (many drivers will wait and throw things at their competitors — like a helmet or their gloves). This happens all the time. Is it a wise decision to make? Probably not. But you cannot fault Ward for what happened.

Now, for Stewart. Some say that Stewart gunned the throttle right before he went by Ward (which might make him look more guilty). In a dirt sprint car, hitting the throttle causes the rear of the car to slide out to the right. It also causes dirt to fly up to that side of the vehicle. Now, Tony is undoubtedly a hothead with a well reported temper. It would not surprise me one bit if Stewart saw Ward standing there and he decided, as he went by,  to give his competitor a little mud-bath. Much like Ward’s move of getting out of his vehicle to show Stewart his displeasure, Stewart’s throttling up would have been just another way of nonverbal communication that is not uncommon in motorsports. I am not saying that is what Tony did — I wasn’t there. That is just possibly what happened based on what I’ve seen and read.

So, what we have here are two common, though probably unwise, maneuvers that resulted in absolute tragedy. Had Ward been a little bit further back or had Stewart timed his throttling a little differently, no one other than the fans there that night would have known what had happened; which would have just been another mild case of racers losing their tempers. Unfortunately, that is not the situation.

My heart mourns for the Ward family and I have been praying for them ever since I heard about what happened. At the end of the day, what we cannot lose sight of is that a young man has lost his life and there is a family who is mourning.

But I guarantee you, Tony Stewart is also mourning. What happened Saturday night changed his life forever and not in a good way. He was scheduled to run the NASCAR race yesterday — he backed out. That is hard move for a race car driver to make. And even though I have never been a fan of his, I can tell you that there is not a single person on this planet who loves racing more than Tony Stewart. He did not back out of that race (or any other future races) lightly. Some people see Stewart as a murderer who needs jail time as punishment for his crime. I see a man who is deeply wounded and doesn’t need to be kicked when he’s down.

See, some events in life are self policing. Who knows, maybe by the rule of law Tony Stewart did commit manslaughter. But don’t you think that the guilt that he is going to carry for the rest of his life is more than punishment enough? He will never be the same person he was before that race on Saturday night. He will always question everything about those moments and about himself.

Life is oftentimes self-punishing and the last thing that man needs right now is to be put on trial.

My thoughts and prayers go out to the Ward family. But I also pray for Tony Stewart and for justice to be served (which may mean leaving the legal system out of it).

 


Beyond the Failure

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I am going to be a little open, honest, and self-revealing here.

The idea of failure is something that I struggle with. I realize that I am merely human and that failure, from time to time, is always going to be inevitable. But failure is something that, for some reason, is something that I have never wanted to be associated with.  I think that I would like to believe that I am above failure. Perhaps this is only my own pride shining through but, for me, failure is just not an option.

Yet, obviously, failure happens — even to me. I am not above it and I cannot always avoid it.

About nine month ago now, my wife and I moved to a tiny town in eastern Oregon known as Vale. The purpose of our move was to pastor a small church of about 10 people. This was my first assignment. Within a year’s time I graduated college, got married, and ended up in my first pastorate. The transitions in life were coming hard and fast and I was just trying to hold on. Of course, I had no intention of failing.

The goal for this church, from the beginning, has been to bring it back to a healthy and stable place. It was not always as small as it has been but various factors resulted in some difficult times. I had hoped to be able to come in here and bring new life to a church that desperately needed it; however, I have learned very quickly that this is not a very easy thing to do. Nine months out from the move and not only has our congregation been unable to grow, it has shrunk.

A couple of weeks ago, I prayed before the service for God to give me a glimpse of what He has in store for the future of our church. I just prayed for a glimpse. On that Sunday, we had the smallest attendance of any week since I had been there. I do not think that anyone saw me, but as we sang the words to “Shout to the Lord’, I could hardly sing a note and I just there crying. Feelings of failure just overwhelmed me and I felt completely defeated. Somehow, I made it through the service with composure but I finally broke down in tears once I was back home with my wife. I told her, “I know it’s probably not true, but I feel like I’ve come in here with all that I have but I’ve failed”.

I have learned that sometimes failure catches up to you and it does not care whether or not you have considered it to be an option but it is going to overwhelm and consume you until you realize that you are not immortal regardless of what your pride tells you. Failure is always an option whether you, I, or anyone else wants it to be. I have had to learn this the hard way.

So, there I was. I had given it my best effort, but, obviously I had failed. What next?

Well, I am still working for the church and we have not missed a Sunday yet. Our attendance is not up (we have actually had a couple of Sundays with even lower attendance since). But my outlook is very different today than it was when I fist arrived in Vale because I am learning to live beyond the failure.

As humans, we will always experience failure. Not every moment in our life is going to be a success or an achievement. So, we have to decide whether or not we are going to allow ourselves to be defined by our failure or be defined by something greater.

The day after “Failure Sunday”, I spent about an hour or two in the church in prayer just asking God what He wanted from me. I spent most of the time just sprawled on the floor in front of the alter asking if God was done with me — He made it clear that He was not. But, finally, I was where I needed to be: face down before God. Over the next few days, I began to realize that there never was any way that I could “grow” the church. I could read 100 books about church growth and try all the ideas of this and that but the only way that the church would grow is if, in fervent prayer, we gave control up to God.

Living beyond failure is learning to first depend upon God and leave the results up to Him. Yes, I will work as hard as I can to be His hands and feet but, at the end of the day, it is not about me and it certainly is not depending on me. It is not about my pride or my fear of failure. It is about giving up control to God.

Since that Sunday, I have challenged myself and everyone in our congregation to find two hours over the course of the week to pray for our church. This is where it has to start. And let me tell you, I believe that our greatest days are ahead of us. I say this not because I believe that I cannot fail (I most certainly can) but because I do not believe God makes mistakes and it is more clear now than ever that this is where God has called me to be. We have exciting things planned for the next couple of months and I am blessed to see where God is going to take us beyond the failure.

 


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